Metropolis: Wednesday, October 17, 2002
‘You’re stuck with trying to figure out who’s being truthful to you.’
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Steered Wrong?

Ex-drovers and the city are in a range war over treatment of the Herd.

By JEFF PRINCE

A couple of former drovers say something smells at the Fort Worth Herd, and they ain’t talking about the round mounds of brown stuff lying on red bricks. They claim poor decisions, animal neglect, and borderline abuse is plaguing the outfit.

Herd managers say what stinks most are disgruntled former employees unjustly criticizing a popular city program as a means of pursing personal vendettas.

The Fort Worth Herd is billed as the world’s only daily cattle drive, with 15 steers and half a dozen drovers making short jaunts down Exchange Avenue each morning and afternoon. Former top hand Dennis Merrill, who was fired two years ago, said the recent deaths of two longhorns in the city’s herd could have been avoided. Meanwhile, a subsequent press release issued by the city smacks of a cover-up, he said.

One of the herd’s original longhorn steers, Chito, died Aug. 31 at Fort Worth Nature Center. The city rotates older steers between herd duties and the Nature Center’s green pastures.

The city issued a Sept. 6 press release announcing that Chito died of old age and gave a brief history of the animal, describing his 2,244 cattle drives in three years. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a Sept. 7 story under the headline “Venerable longhorn Chito passes on.” The article said the steer died of natural causes related to old age. “We were fortunate he was out at the Nature Center grazing and being free,” the Star-Telegram quoted Harold Pitchford, resource management superintendent for the city’s Parks and Community Service Department, as saying. “When they get that age and their joints hurt and they are arthritic, it’s best to let them live out their lives in dignity. He had just reached the end of the trail.”

What the press release and news article both failed to mention was that Chito’s trail ended with the steer in mud up to his belly, stuck in a pond, and unable to free himself.

Drovers make two visits a week to check on steers at the Nature Center. It is impossible to determine exactly how long Chito had been stuck, but it could have been several days. After drovers used a truck and a winch to pull Chito free, the steer was exhausted and unable to stand. Pitchford told drovers to let the steer rest beside the tank and to leave feed and water beside him, hoping he would recover. But Chito didn’t get well, and a veterinarian decided euthanasia was the best option.

Merrill told the Star-Telegram that Chito’s death wasn’t as idyllic as the city had claimed. He also said that drovers on two occasions had previously winched out another steer, Carrot Top, from the mud. “I sent an e-mail that told them exactly how it happened,” he said. “They refused to print it.”

Whistleblowers often face credibility problems. Merrill is routinely characterized by city officials as a disgruntled former employee obsessed with faulting herd managers. The Star-Telegram, Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department, Humane Society of North Texas, USDA, and other agencies have listened to Merrill’s numerous complaints over the past two years. None of his complaints has led to disciplinary action against the city.

Merrill was still complaining about Chito in early September when another steer died. Ned, 18, had bogged down in the mud, been winched out by drovers, and was unable to stand afterward. He, too, was euthanized. Steers mired in mud on four different occasions, with two of them dying, indicates neglect and mismanagement, Merrill said. “Harold Pitchford cooked up a nice press release that Chito died peaceably because they knew they had a PR problem if it got handled wrong,” he said. “Within a week of Chito’s death, Ned got bogged. They didn’t issue a press release on Ned.”

Former drover Doug Moore, who was recently fired after a dispute with a supervisor, was among the drovers who winched Chito out of the mud. “If you see a situation [of] an animal getting stuck in the mud the first time and then a second time, that would be an indication that we have a problem,” he said. “There was some comments made [by drovers] wondering if this was going to be a problem and do we need to take these steers to another location or take them back to the Stockyards. Harold said no.”

Pitchford told Fort Worth Weekly that steers and cows had been grazing around the pond without incident for five months before Carrot Top got stuck. After Carrot Top was stuck a second time, Pitchford returned him to his Oklahoma owner. Then, Chito got stuck. But, at 30 years old, Chito’s inability to get out of the mud or stand up afterward was attributed to old age and arthritis.

Pitchford said his press release was based on a report by William C. Anderson, a private veterinarian who performs work for the city. However, Anderson’s Sept. 2 report makes prominent mention of factors contributing to the steer’s death. “His entrapment in mud along with the extreme heat factor resulted in severe muscle damage and heat exhaustion,” the report said. “We were able to initially help him but due to his age and arthritic problems he was unable to improve and succumbed to these injuries on Aug. 31, 2002.”

The city press release merely stated that Chito died “from complications related to old age.” Pitchford said there was no intent to mislead. He simply interpreted the veterinarian’s report as a steer dying of old age, he said. And there is no conspiracy in failing to issue a press release after Ned’s death, he said. “Chito had been with the program a long time, and that was the first instance of us losing a steer,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll do one [a press release] for every steer.”

A recent visit to the pond revealed clean and cool water, surrounded by fields of thick, green grass — bliss to a steer. The banks are not steep and don’t appear overly muddy or dangerous. Pitchford’s decision to leave steers near the tank after Chito’s death doesn’t seem unreasonable. After Ned’s death, Pitchford moved the steers to a fenced pasture that allows no access to the pond.

Longtime cattleman Robert McKenzie donated Ned to the Herd and was saddened when city officials told him Ned had died. However, city officials didn’t initially mention the mud, he said. That news came from Merrill. Afterward, McKenzie stormed down to the Stockyards and confronted Pitchford and City Councilman Jim Lane. McKenzie was calmed during the conversation but later told the Weekly he was unsure about who or what to believe. “You’re stuck with trying to figure out who’s being truthful to you,” he said. “Harold is a nice guy, and I think he tries hard. But I’m not certain I’ve heard everything from every side.”

One thing agreed upon by everyone quoted in this article is that the Fort Worth Herd is an excellent promotional tool for the city. No clear evidence indicates animal neglect or mismanagement. But herd officials realize their actions are closely scrutinized.

“That’s what the value of the press is, when you start asking questions,” Lane said. “I applaud your inquiry. If you find there is purposeful neglect, I would like to know that.”


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